David Rea (1845-1916) was born near Lurgan, in Northern Ireland. Married in 1868, he was brought to Christ the following year. His notorious drinking had been a colossal embarrassment to his faithful wife and a scandal to his relatives and neighbors, but the night after conversion he immediately testified to the grace of God.
After leading an old friend of his to Christ, David was emboldened to arrange a meeting of others he knew needed the Saviour. Seven came. They sang the hymn, “I hear the words of love,” and then the unusual began. “I cannot describe the feeling that came over us while the hymn was being sung. Some turned quite pale, and three or four of the seven professed conversion.” He was given such liberty in his message, that he became convinced that God had called him to preach the gospel to the world.
“I arranged a meeting for the next Saturday night,” he writes, “and gave a general invitation to all the people around the district to attend. My joy and love for souls was so great that I could scarcely take my food. The news soon spread, and on the night of the meeting the school-room was filled long before the time announced. We commenced by singing, ‘Rock of ages, cleft for me.’
“I then prayed and read a portion of Luke 13: ‘Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.’ Amid the cries of the anxious and the shouts of newborn souls, I continued speaking for about three and a half hours. The scene was indescribable: fathers, mothers, and children crying together for mercy (some of the adults hardened blasphemers). The meeting did not break up until after midnight, and most of the audience returned at six o’clock the same morning, and we continued almost all that day. I sent word to the places where I thought I had committed the most sins that I was going to tell them of Jesus, but we could get no halls large enough to hold the people who came.
“In most of these places, we had not long commenced our meeting before we could hear the cries of the anxious from several parts of the building.”
Initially he would preach in the open town square, and endured fiery opposition, venturing into hostile territory among both Catholics and Protestants. Two years after his conversion, he began public preaching full-time with the Irish Evangelization Society. He was of those rare pioneers in the southwest of Ireland, where hatred of Protestantism was rife. He was pelted by mud balls and stones. Once four men held him down and tried to get a huge dog to tear out his throat.
On another occasion, a mob surrounded their building, broke every window, and trampled and beat any who tried to leave (including Rea). The next day, his face was so bruised and swollen that his friends scarcely recognized him. Still he preached that evening.
His tent was vandalized, and his life threatened. Once a bomb was set to explode his carriage (it missed). On numerous occasions, he was escorted home by a police guard. Slandered, insulted, and injured, he still held forth with the Word of life.
In the counties of Armagh, Down, Tyrone, and Londonderry, he preached day and night, the people often only breaking up at 5 a.m. to go to work. David’s gospel meetings were very similar to the occurrences during the revival of 1859. For instance, in Dooran, in 1877, Christians requested he go to this mountainous district. They asserted that if he preached there, as he had done in Donegal, there would be a repetition of the “Revival of 1859.”
The trip to Dooran was a long drive over the hills in a terrific storm. “Our horse was a most stubborn animal, frequently stopping on the way, and it was with difficulty that we got it to move on. Everything seemed against our reaching our destination. When we arrived, the meeting house was filled with people, notwithstanding the severe storm. Immediately I entered, I felt the presence of the Lord, and when I commenced to preach, an indescribable power fell upon the whole congregation, and cries for mercy were heard from people in many parts of the building. Afterwards in some of these meetings I had occasionally to stop speaking, as some would stand up and shout: ‘Glory to God,’ while others fell prostrate on the floor in anguish of soul, and cried aloud for mercy. Eventually I had to stop preaching altogether, and had just to look on and see the Lord working. Sometimes there would be almost one hundred in one place crying for mercy; in another quarter a number were congregated praying for them, while others went among them pointing them to Christ. Again, a dozen or so would be standing, after finding peace, praising God aloud.”
A solemn incident occurred at that time which had a far-reaching effect in those days.
“A clergyman denounced the work from the pulpit, and characterized it as being the work of the devil. A short time afterward, when we had just returned home from the meeting, we heard two loud peals of thunder, and in the morning we were astonished to learn that the church of this clergyman had been struck by lightning and shattered to pieces. We went to see it, and it presented an awful spectacle. The spire had been hurled a distance of one hundred yards from the building. Seats, walls, windows, and the great organ were one mass of ruins. The thoroughfares leading to the church were crowded with people going to see the strange sight, while they solemnly discussed the language of the minister regarding us which he had uttered a few days previously.
“We had a wonderful time that night. I trembled in the meeting. God seemed to be present in awful majesty. I announced a meeting for the next Lord’s Day to commence at nine o’clock in the morning. Long before that hour the roads were thronged with people on their way to attend it. Their church had been destroyed and no other place had been arranged for service that day. We continued the meeting until about one o’clock, and almost thirty professed conversion. In parting, it seemed as if Heaven had already begun: every face was wet with tears, parents kissed their children, friends greeted each other, and my hand was crushed and pained with shaking hands in bidding Good-bye.”
But reading the Scriptures, he determined to leave the Irish Evangelization Society because of their rules. For instance, they did not allow him to baptize converts. The evangelist must be God’s freeman. This change was a great trial to his and his wife’s faith. The year was 1877. But he found God well able to guide and provide, though not without testings. One keen test was on the homefront. All his five children trusted Christ. His son Tom, who wrote his biography, was an earnest and useful evangelist in Ireland. But David lived to see three of his children and his wife pass on before him. His son William died when only fourteen, in 1881. His wife died in 1888 when just fifty-one years old. As she lay dying, she quoted to the doctor the lines:
Content to go, content to stay,
Content to suffer still;
Content to glory in the cross,
And wait His blessed will.
Henrietta died in 1892, at the age of sixteen; Rachel died in 1894, when twenty years old. We believe they all had an abundant entrance into the everlasting kingdom, but what a loss to this sensitive man. David had a confident presentation, and a manly demeanor. But inwardly he was high strung and could swing to emotional extremes. Well into his career as a gospel preacher, he had bouts of depression in which he questioned his own salvation.
Still he held forth. Devoid of the fear of man, he preached the truth of God in the north, south and west of Ireland; in Liverpool, London, and Barnstaple, England; and in Glasgow and Aberdeen, Scotland.
In Ballymena in 1892, no building could hold the crowds, some walking twelve miles to the meetings. The central attraction was the uplifted Christ. In his large tent, made to seat 2,000, it is estimated that 3,000 crammed into the ballooning canvas. God did a wonderful work, in Belfast and in the counties of Ulster. Rea feared “spurious converts,” and discouraged after meetings in which people were asked to stand up, profess faith, sign cards, etc. He left souls alone with God, getting out of the way, so that God was free to do His own work. David preached the Word solemnly and faithfully, but not boringly. He had a clear, resonant singing voice, and amid preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ, he could spontaneously launch into a gospel song. His favorite song was “The City Foursquare.”
It was not exaggeration to describe his preaching as “magnetic,” “thrilling” and “stunning.” But what was the secret of his power? Rea’s fellow laborers: Archibald Bell, William McLean, and Francis Logg all testified to his depth in prayer and sensitivity to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. On one occasion, he dismissed a congregation of about three hundred because, he said, God had not given him liberty to preach that night. The next night an enormous crowd came out to hear “the man with no message.”
After forty-seven years of earnest evangelistic work, David Rea, the beloved evangelist, went to his rest, on September 2, 1916.
His son Tom watched his deathbed and heard his last words: “This is the best time I have had on earth; how lovely. The morn of Heaven is dawning. I am lying just outside the gate. I long to go in.” Clasping his hands, he sang a favorite verse. Mid-sentence, with the name of the One he had served on his lips, he passed into His presence.
Not long after Rea’s death, Henry Pickering wrote, “Twenty-five years ago, when Mr. Rea was in the full vigor of manhood, spiritual and temporal, it was well worth walking 10 miles any night to hear his burning words of gospel grace, flowing forth with a natural eloquence, a spiritual penetration, a deepening intensity and a soul-convicting, soul-awakening, soul-converting force, which we have never seen equalled . . . before or since.”